Melbourne Age, March 30, 2014

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The lasting attraction of
Elvis Costello and the Imposters

Bernard Zuel

After close to 40 years behind Elvis Costello, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard man Steve Nieve know — and appreciate — their man.

Uh oh, there's trouble in the ranks. Pete Thomas, who has drummed behind Elvis Costello for nigh on 37 years, has just been told that Steve Nieve, who has been playing keyboards with Costello for just as long, described the drummer as "a fully fledged Californian," and it wasn't entirely clear if that was meant as the ultimate insult or not.

"Well, let's face it, I'd rather be a fully fledged Californian than a Parisian nancy boy," Thomas, originally from Sheffield but now of Los Angeles, smacks back at Nieve, originally from London but now of the city of light. Ooh, le sting. And then Thomas bursts into delighted laughter.

The two remaining members of The Attractions, Costello's band for almost 20 years (with bassist Bruce Thomas), are also two-thirds of the Imposters, Costello's band over the past decade (with bassist Davey Faragher). And they're also something more.

"Steve really is probably my best friend," Thomas says. "From the beginning, we roomed together and when we went on adventures and things it was always me and him. We've been arrested together, several times, and we've been together so long now that we've got a natural friendship."

Not just friends but admirers of what each brings to his work with the forever changing Costello, who is usually — and incorrectly — described as the former punk rocker who made a country album at the height of his pop fame, learnt classical scoring to work with the Brodsky Quartet and later symphony orchestras, has written for jazz ensembles and former pop stars, co-written with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, and recorded Americana, folk, rock and soul.

"If you are in LA doing sessions there are various people who come in and they will play some generic blues or boogie woogie. Steve doesn't think like that," Thomas says. "He'll go and listen to some blues or some country but he'll incorporate that into his own style, because he's classically trained and he's got this melodic library, this catalogue that he can draw on.

"Most of Elvis' songs are fairly straightforward chords and things but [Nieve] will bring in something that no one ever thought of. It's really refreshing. I mean me and Davey [Faragher] hold it down, Elvis does what he does and Nieve goes bonkers over the top."

Nieve praises Thomas for his solidity and flexibility but also for being one of those unfussy drummers in the Ringo Starr/Charlie Watts mould who don't try to be the stars but make everything possible. ("I don't like drummers that draw too much attention to themselves," is how Thomas explains himself. "They generally don't groove."). The keyboardist calls their musical relationship "fairly intuitive," but he deflects some of the praise coming his way to focus on how the work of their bandleader challenges them both.

"I think Elvis is a fantastic artist, one of the great artists of the world, who is well known for taking risks himself, for going in all sorts of directions, being curious about all sorts of things," Nieve says. "I'm extremely happy to venture along with him when those opportunities arrive."

Elvis Costello of course has no problem speaking for himself. If anything, the garrulous veteran musician, musicologist, multi-musical stylist and songwriter of no mean standard has to be hog-tied and gagged these days to stop him talking. Nieve, on the other hand, has to be cajoled. He is helped by the fact that after solo recordings, a music-theatre project with lyrics by his wife, Muriel Teodori, and now film scoring (including David Wenham's segment of the film The Turning), he's got himself a new album under his name, called Together.

The record features 14 different vocalists — from Costello and Laurie Anderson to Sting and his bass-playing son, Joe Sumner — and as usual he's been ready to push the boat out musically, to be uncomfortable.

"I am a bit uncomfortable in general, in life," Nieve says. "I find it gives you excitement when you do that, and that's probably why I like to take that risk."

As Thomas readily agrees, risk taking is one of the attractions of being an Attraction and an Imposter.

"That's one of the great things about playing with [Costello]: he explores all these different areas so if he wants to do a bossa nova then you have to go and listen to bossa novas and try to find who is the best guy — there's this Brazilian called Milton Banana who played on The Girl from Ipanema. And you find these people, you study what they do and it helps you develop as a drummer.

"But sometimes it takes a second live: he'll whip into something else and it's, whoa! Sometimes it's more a question of intensity. When we do our new-wave stuff, it's pretty flat out, it's fairly physical. You've got to be fit and you've got to whack them. But then if you suddenly switch to something with brushes, it can take a second — but not just for me, for everyone in the band," he laughs.

"Sometimes we'll look at each other and "who-oa-oa."

Elvis Costello and the Imposters play on April 23 at the State Theatre. Also, on April 21 at Bluesfest, Byron Bay; and April 19 at Deni Blues & Roots Festival, Deniliquin.

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The Age, March 30, 2014

Bernard Zuel interviews Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve ahead of the 2014 Australia Tour.


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